ON THE ROAD TO CASHMERE, THE WHITE GOLD OF THE HIMALAYAS

INDIA, JULY 2022

 

ON THE ROAD TO CASHMERE, THE WHITE GOLD OF THE HIMALAYAS

From the heights of the Himalayan mountains to the embroidery workshops in Srinagar, the wool of the Pashmina goats is used to produce the luxurious cashmere garments sold around the world.

Our journey begins in Srinagar, the pearl of the Kashmir Valley. The city is built around the Dal Lake where thousands of house boats float, remnants of the colonial era, now transformed into hotels. Boarding a shikara – a kind of small rowing boat – we leave ours to reach the mainland. Between the hundreds of stores and other street vendors promising to sell “the real pashmina”, we decide to stop in a state-owned store with official certification. In advance, I announce: “I am not here to buy. I want to know everything about cashmere”.

Aaqib Wangnoo, a young man in his thirties who runs the National Cottage Emporium (NCE), sits us down at the back of his store before offering us some tea. Proud of his business and the shawls he sells (thousands of them), Aaqib tells us the story of the white gold route.

The wool comes from the region of Ladakh, at the northern tip of India. With a diameter of 12 to 14 microns[1] – up to six times smaller than a human hair – the fiber is one of the finest in the world. It is then in Srinagar that the shawls are woven by hand using an ancestral process. The garment produced is then adorned with embroidery, the size and sophistication of which can raise the price of a piece to several thousand euros.

Aaqib is eloquent when it comes to sharing his passion for shawls. Many steps are necessary to make it. The raw wool is first washed and combed before being spun around a metal rod. It is with the spools thus formed that the weaver will weave the shawl on his loom. The blank shawl is then marked with ink by a stamper who will print the patterns that the embroiderer will follow for his cotton or silk ornaments. Finally, the shawl is washed and ironed before being put on sale.

[1] Nazir A. Bumla, Maria A, Sarfaraz A Wani and Showkeen M Bashir, « Physical Properties of Pashmina Fiber – A Review », Shanlax International Journal of Veterinary Science,‎ janvier-mars 2015

 

HISTORY

Although the first traces of a pashmina shawl weaving industry date back to the 11th century, its origin seems much older. Traces have been found in artifacts dating back to ancient times, from the Indus Valley civilization.

Nevertheless, it is only during the Mughal period, in the 15th century, that the shawl will become a mark of nobility and will know a real development. Babur, who founded the Mughal Empire in India, established the tradition of Khil’at, or “robes of honor”: he offered luxurious fabrics to members of the court as a sign of royal favor. The tradition was extended to Iran where the Safavid emperors perpetuated it from the 18th century.

With the waves of European colonization, the pashmina travels towards England. It is once in Europe that the pashmina will be renamed Kashmir, from the name of the region of origin of the shawls. The popularity of the fabric only grew, gaining France and then Europe in the 19th century under the impulse of the future Empress Josephine. A revival of popularity since the 1990’s, thanks to the enthusiasm of major brands for its finesse, has made cashmere a must-have in luxury wardrobes.

 

WEAVING

On the initiative of Aaqib, we go to meet the craftsmen of Srinagar who make the shawls. First step, the weaving. The rickshaw slaloms at full speed between the cars, honking the unfortunate ones who respect too much the traffic rules. In the city’ s suburbs, we enter a house only made of concrete blocks. The absence of a handrail to guide the hand when climbing the stairs gives this building an unfinished feeling.

Merraj Udim is installed in a small dark room. He handles a large machine made of wood and wires that go up and down in all directions. With his expert hands, he makes the whole thing move like a puppeteer, with precision and speed. The shuttle, on which the precious wool has been wound, crosses the loom from right to left at each passage of the sley. Despite the speed, it will take several days to complete the shawl. He works here with his brother, who is in an adjacent room. Together they have more than 30 years of experience. In Srinagar, the craft is passed down from generation to generation and Aaqib’s father used to trade with Merraj’s father.

From the loom comes a blank shawl. In the tradition of Kashmiri dressmaking, the shawl must be embellished with cotton or silk embroidery. Depending on the fineness and extent of the embroidery on the work, the shawl will have different names. Thus, the Hashidar has its embroidery on its outer perimeter. The Paldar follows the same design but with wider borders. The embroidery on the Botidar is even finer. On the Jali, the embroidery paths are scattered all over the shawl, meeting harmoniously in places. Finally, the Jama, the most luxurious of all, is completely covered with embroidery that completely hides the pashmina.

Once the blank shawl is finalized, it is taken to a stamper. The patterns he prints on it are used to guide the embroiderer’s work.

 

STAMPING

We drive towards another district of the suburbs of Srinagar. A rustic iron staircase overhanging a house, also made of bare cinder blocks, takes us to the second floor. Mushtaq, a professional stamper, sits on the floor in front of a low table on which rests a plain-colored shawl. Around him, the shelves seem about to collapse under the weight of the stamps piled up there, without any apparent hierarchy. A strong acid smell fills the humid air. It is the ink, we are told.

After a short pause to greet us, Mushtaq resumes his work. He plunges a brush into a bucket filled with a black ink that he will then rub against a small rectangular pad of about ten centimeters. Once soaked, the pad is placed on the fabric. A well-placed punch on the whole finishes marking the shawl. Each new stroke follows the previous one with surgical precision. The continuity of the patterns on the whole fabric depends on this crucial step.

 

EMBROIDERY

Once the designs are inked, the shawl can be sent to the embroiderer. We meet him at his home. Nar Mehraj is sitting alone in the corner of a large empty room. Natural light floods in from two windows on either side. He barely raises his head when we enter, concentrated on his meticulous work. If the concentration of watchmakers is so well known that it is honored by a popular proverb, looking at Nar, perfectly still, whose hands alone seem to be animated by small, precise and calculated movements, one thinks that the embroiderers of Kashmir also deserve a maxim!

The entanglement of threads is as much a matter of patience as of wonder. Patience because the piece he is embroidering, a Paldar, will take him nearly a month to complete. The Jali and the Jama can take up to a year. And wonder because the patterns added one by one, millimeter by millimeter, color by color, end up fitting harmoniously with each other in a symphony of details.

Once finalized, the shawl is sent to a washer. We walk the streets again. We walk along tightly packed houses. The wet pavement descends to a river that cuts the neighborhood in two. We enter by a narrow path to Mudasir’s house. A ram, chewing a tuft of grass in a corner, looks at us with a sleepy look.

 

WASHING

The backyard of the house is made up of two large, step-like basins filled with water, itself drawn from the river below. Mudasir, with a smile on his face, takes a shawl and dips it generously in soapy water. Once soaked, it is with surprise that we see him hitting this brand new shawl against a stone in a very vigorous way. The harsh sound of the fabric hitting the rock makes me shiver with each blow.

But the shawl is extremely strong. It withstands all the blows with ease without the embroidery moving a thread. Once dried, the shawl is then ironed in a large machine organized around a central cylinder whose interior is heated to 100 degrees by large resistances. Mudasir can wash and iron up to 350 shawls per day.

Once the finished product is in our hands, we want to know more about the raw material. If pashmina wool is one of the most expensive in the world, it is because its quality is exceptional. Aaqib explains that he buys pashmina in Leh, the regional capital of Ladakh. It is there that the nomads sell the wool between 30 and 150 euros per kilo, depending on its quality.

 

NOMADS

Early in the morning, we take a shared cab to Leh, 418 km to the East. During 12 hours, we climb the mountains. As we rise to the sky, the scenery turns into a lunar landscape. The vegetation disappears, leaving the place to a rocky and desert land.

In Leh, we meet Nawang Phuntsog, director of the Nomadic Wooden Mills, a pashmina store which advocates sustainable handicrafts, respectful of the traditions and lifestyles of the nomadic populations. A part of its receipts is thus transferred to them.

It is only in summer, when temperatures are milder, that the Chantang nomads go up to the Himalayan highlands, at an altitude of more than 5000 meters. Narwang, himself from a semi-nomadic family, introduces us to his uncle who lives about ten kilometers from a nomadic camp and who agrees to take us along. We climb in his 4×4.

From the 3500 meters of altitude of Leh, we start to climb again. We cross the Tanglang pass which culminates at more than 5300 meters. On this high mountain road, we meet, among the workers who repair the road, some women sitting on the ground who, during their break, spin the raw pashmina wool around a metal spool. Wool is the primary source of income for the people of Changtang. From the shepherds who take their goats to the high mountain pastures to the women sitting on the side of the road, everyone participates in the activity.

Descending to 4700 meters of altitude, we stop on the side of the road at about twenty kilometers of the lake Tsokar. Forgotten of the electric network and running water, our guest house comes to complete a small grouping of about ten houses in the middle of desert mountains.

 

When you are so high, oxygen is rare. One suffocates. At night, we constantly wake up from nightmares of drowning in a big gulp of air that never brings enough to the lungs. It is necessary to take several deep breaths, enough to make your chest explode, before you can breathe normally again. Any effort is subject to this constraint. The night is short. So much the better, the nomadic life is (very) early. We leave before 6 am for the camp.

We arrive at the bottom of a valley. About twenty tents surround a stream on both sides. Yaks graze in freedom. The twenty or so families who live here have several hundred head of cattle. Each sheep and goat, piled up in enclosures closed by low stone walls, has a blue, red, pink or green spot… the herd has the color of the family to which it belongs. Without running water or electricity, finding shelter in woolen tents heated with dried yak manure, the nomads have a hard life.

The sun rises softly behind the mountains as the shepherds gather their flocks with whips and slingshots to leave for the high pastures. They will return only in the evening, sometimes after sunset. During this time, the women remaining in the camp work on the elaboration of yak wool carpets and clothes for the winter. The men clean the enclosures, especially to collect the yak manure that will be used to heat tents during winter.

Within the herds, small goats with fine and smooth fur stand out from the others. They are the pashmina goats. Their fur, formidably warm, allows them to survive the harshness of winter, when temperatures sometimes drop below -30 degrees.

 

It is only once a year, at the beginning of the summer, when the animals naturally lose their winter coat, that the shepherds gather to collect the wool. Using a small metal rake, they come to comb the fleece of the goat, tied up and put on the knees of the shepherd sitting on the ground. The goats are not shaved, only the surplus – what falls naturally – is collected. During the operation, the goat protests a little, apparently more against being tied up than against the collection itself, which, I am assured, is painless, almost comparable to a massage. On a single goat, breeders can collect between 150 and 300 grams of raw wool. Once cleaned of its impurities (secretions, hair, dirt, leaves, etc.), the wool only weighs 35% of its initial weight.

Fully issued from a traditional breeding, the Indian pashmina wool is considered as one of the best. Its human-sized production, with open-air breeding, by nature respectful of the environment, represents only 1% of the world production of pashmina. At the head of the producers, we find China (70% of the world production) with which India shares the Tibetan plateau, then Mongolia with 20%.

If, even today, the pashmina of Ladakh remains one of the most prized wools in the world, the industrialized means of production of the Chinese neighbor threaten the sector. The wool harvested in intensive breeding, woven by machines in factories, competes with the traditional techniques of hand weaving in Kashmir.

Aggravating the situation is the impact of climate change on these high mountain plains. Harsher winters and even drier summers are forcing families to leave their nomadic lifestyle and move to urban areas.

Even if the pashmina of the Himalayan high plateaus still has a lot to offer, the whole industry has to rethink its ways to adapt. Sedentarization, reconversion… Attracted by a less harsh life, the young generations of Ladakh nomads are leaving the mountains for more clement lands.

 
 
 

GALLERY

 
 
 
 
 

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